On Sunday, January 14, 2018 Hamline’s Creative Writing Programs will host a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor all the students who have completed their studies and will be receiving an MFA from Hamline University. 

We will be featuring our soon-to-be alumni as they look back on their time at Hamline University. Today’s new graduate is Patti Sutton. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband, Dan.

What do you do when you’re not working on packets?

When I’m not working on packets, I spend time with our family. I’m on call if my grandsons Owen or Ben are sick and can’t go to daycare. Then it’s “Nana-Emergency-Daycare.” I feel so grateful to live in the same town with my kids and their families.

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?

I read about it years ago online. I didn’t know there was an MFA program that focused on writing for children and young adults. And I had never heard of a “low-residency” program before. Living just four hours away from St. Paul, it seemed like the perfect fit for me.

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?

I taught writing to elementary and middle school students. I learned most of the basics through teaching lessons on character, setting and plot in my classroom. If you want a tough critique group, try writing stories on an overhead in front of a bunch of 7th and 8th graders. Brutal! After retirement, I completed my first nonfiction manuscript. I went to SCBWI events and submitted to agents and editors and received good feedback, along with many rejections. I really wasn’t sure what to do next.

What do you especially remember about your first residency?

Within minutes of the first meeting with Mary Rockcastle, I started tearing up. She described Hamline as a “safe place” to do our work. She warned us it would be challenging, but in the end we would be part of building and maintaining this community of writers. I learned that community is an essential ingredient in this process. I also remember hitting the wall early Tuesday morning. I looked like hell. Phyllis Root came up to me in the hotel lobby and asked, “Are you okay?” I’m pretty sure I started crying again out of sheer exhaustion and feeling like I didn’t measure up. What I realized after talking to others was that it’s a normal feeling. Most of us suffer self-doubt, but it’s part of the process.

Have you focused on any one form (PB, novel, nonfiction, graphic novel) or age group in your writing? Tried a form you never thought you’d try?

I came in wanting to write nonfiction for middle grade/YA. I spent much of my time doing that and was fortunate to work with Claire Rudolf Murphy. She gave me a great introduction to the genre and helped me write a proposal that led to a book deal with Chicago Review Press by the end of that first semester. Capsized! The Forgotten Story of the S.S Eastland will be released July 1, 2018. What a graduation present. I also dabbled in picture books (fiction/nonfiction) and historical fiction. My advice would be to experiment with the unfamiliar. It’s a great opportunity.

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.

I’m writing another narrative nonfiction piece for upper middle grade. It’s called Deluged! The Johnstown Flood of 1889. Notice a pattern? I guess I like disasters! As an avid researcher, I discovered a story within my story, and also wrote a nonfiction picture book about Clara Barton.

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?

I have learned how to take all of those details I’ve discovered and turn them into scenes for my readers. Instead of a dry retelling of the event, I’ve worked to show the story through the eyes of those who were there and who have left their words behind. Narrative nonfiction is a perfect fit for this former elementary/middle school teacher. I can still help kids discover real events from history, but through a narrative structure. I DO sometimes slip back into my teacher voice, so I have a note on my desk that says, “Tell their stories, don’t teach them.”

Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?

If you want to learn how to write for kids, invest in yourself and join the program. I could only get so far on my own. Fact is, I didn’t really know what I didn’t know. Hamline offers you knowledge, structure and accountability. The members of Hamline’s faculty are there to guide and push you along the way. But ultimately, it is a personal journey. I’m so glad I took this path.